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Rach Star

Black and White: 'Shine' depicts pianist David Helfgott's keys to sanity.

Pianist Jeffrey Kahane shines

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he meets up with esteemed pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane of the Santa Rosa Symphony to discuss the musically savvy, critically acclaimed film Shine.

RENOWNED MUSICIAN Jeffrey Kahane is a man so desperately busy that he has not been out to a movie theater in days, weeks, months. Furthermore, I am politely informed, he probably won't make it to a movie anytime soon.

Though intrigued by my offer to see the brilliant new film Shine--the story of Australian pianist David Helfgott and his roller-coaster relationship with sanity and Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto--and admittedly eager to see it, Kahane has expressed concerns that he would not be able to find the spare time to go off to a show.

Fortunately, a conveniently released videocassette of the film (intended for homebound Oscar voters; Shine is still in its initial theatrical release) has made its way into my timely possession, and I quickly arrange to drop the film off for Mr. Kahane's private viewing.

"All right. I may have a moment after midnight," he says.

The hard-working pianist and former rock musician is currently holding a post as conductor of the award-winning Santa Rosa Symphony, a choice job that he sandwiches between numerous recording projects and international tours. Last year, Kahane saw the release of Made in America (Sony Records), a passionate assemblage of works by Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, on which he collaborated with acclaimed violinist Yo Yo Ma, whom he met while playing with the Gardner Chamber Orchestra in Boston. The duo frequently work together, as in last year's successful tour of South America.

"I hope you like your coffee somewhat strong," Kahane warns. A man of boundless natural energy, he nevertheless clearly enjoys the extra punch of a good cup of joe; this stuff is explosive.

Of course, he was up pretty late.

"There is an extraordinary sequence in the film," Kahane says, setting his cup on a blank music sheet, "where the young David Helfgott performs Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto for the first time. All of a sudden--he can't hear the music, we can't hear the music, but he's playing. We hear the pounding of his fingers on the keys, the pounding of his heart, and when we do hear the music, it sometimes seems out of phase with his playing.

"This really happens," Kahane says earnestly. "Most performers experience something like this at one time or another. It's very difficult to explain. I've certainly had that experience--though not to the severity that David does."

At the end of that sequence, Helfgott, soaked in sweat, finishes the concerto and promptly passes out. He is next shown receiving shock therapy in an asylum. The implication is that his attempt to master Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto--nicknamed "Rach 3"--has been so traumatic that it pushes the already unstable young man over the edge. Indeed, the piece is considered one of the most difficult works in classical music, with some pages nearly black with notes. The remainder of the film details the adult Helfgott's ultimate redemption, as he rises out of a schizophrenic fog and finds his way back to music. The real David Helfgott could not resist returning to the Rach 3, either. His CD recording of the piece is now considered the definitive performance of the work.

"I love the Rachmaninoff Third," Kahane says. "It's a piece I've played a lot. For me, as it is for most aspiring pianists, it's something you have to do. Once you've accomplished that, it's like climbing a great mountain--you've really done something."

And is it the kind of piece that could drive one to madness?

"Oh yes," he affirms mildly. "It could put you right over the edge. Many pianists injure themselves, physically, trying to play it. And if you are psychologically vulnerable, as David was--yes, I believe it could do that to you." Kahane himself learned the piece when he was 22, but did not perform it publicly for several years. He has performed it frequently since.

"What I love about the movie, ultimately, is its depiction of the redemptive power of music," Kahane continues. "I've devoted myself so much to the idea that music does have that kind of power. David was saved by the power of music, and the power of love, of course, with the love of his wife, who saw who David was even though everyone around him just saw a nut case."

Asked to verify a rumor that Rachmaninoff had tremendously large hands, Kahane laughs.

"That's true, that's what they say," he says. "He could reach an octave and a fifth! Way beyond the reach of most pianists."

Holding up his own hands, spreading his fingers to demonstrate his reach, Kahane adds, "My hands, however, are definitely on the smaller end of the spectrum. Interestingly, though, Rachmaninoff's work can be played with a very small hand, unlike that of other composers: Brahms, Liszt, Bartok. I can play Rachmaninoff, and I am eternally grateful to him for making that possible.

"My life," he smiles, "has certainly been the richer for it."

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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